Australia’s vaccine rollout now in total disarray, with new problems emerging

Australia’s vaccine rollout plans are now in disarray after the government said the AstraZeneca vaccine — the jab most Australians were going to receive — should now be avoided by anyone under 50.

The shock move means the timeline for the rollout has effectively been thrown out the window.

On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was “too early” to say how Australia’s vaccine rollout would be affected now half the population would likely not receive the only vaccine produced on Australian soil.

The original aim, to vaccinate Australia by the end of October, now seems certain to be missed.

The longer Australians have to wait for a vaccine, the longer the threat of outbreaks remain and the longer the international border remains closed.

It’s a situation the PM and Government desperately did not want to be in.

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A “rare but serious risk” of blood clots, some fatal, has now led the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) to recommend the British-Swedish jab be offered chiefly to people over the age of 50.

Around four to six people per million doses are showing up with the clots, first detected in Europe.

The risk of a blood clot with the vaccine is low – lower than in people taking the contraceptive pill or travelling on long haul flights. Nonetheless, the government said it was limiting AstraZeneca to over 50s out of an “abundance of caution”.

Over 50s are at a decreased risk of getting the clots but at a higher risk of falling seriously ill with COVID-19.

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Where will the other jabs come from?

Australia is heavily reliant on the AstraZeneca jab. Almost 54 million doses are on order, most of those being produced in CSL’s Melbourne facility.

Under 50s will now be offered alternative jabs

The problem is – what jabs and by when?

A government document detailing Australia’s vaccine rollout (below) shows there are more than 12 million people under the age of 50 in line to get the jab. Most of those were to get AstraZeneca.

That’s around 25 million shots that now need to be sourced from somewhere else.

The only other shot which has been given the green light by the government is the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

But the Government has secured less than half the doses of Pfizer than of AstraZeneca – 20 million in total.

That’s enough for 10 million people. However, many of these have already been earmarked for higher risk, often older age, groups.

The Pfizer shots are also manufactured overseas and supply chains, as the delays in shipping AstraZeneca vials to Australia has shown, can be shaky.

US company Novavax is due to deliver 51 million doses of its vaccine from mid-2021. However, the clinical trials have yet to be completed on this shot. And, like Pfizer, it’s manufactured overseas.

Finally, Australia has access to 25 million shots through the COVAX agreement – but that is a far vaguer plan for shots from a variety of firms “as they become available”.

Vaccine rollout timeline

In a joint statement with Health Minister Greg Hunt, Mr Morrison said “the vaccination program will continue. The longer term time frame for the program is being reviewed following this medical advice.”

The original aim was the rollout to be mostly completed by the end of October. But even before Thursday’s announcement, it wasn’t going well.

By the end of March, the Government had promised that four million Australians would be jabbed. As of this week, fewer than one million have received a shot.

The restricting of AstraZeneca to the over 50s will likely only compound the delays.

Theoretically, Australia’s various agreements are for more than enough shots, but what matters is when the vials can be delivered.

CSL has told the Government that it can only manufacture one vaccine at a time. So while it’s pumping out AstraZeneca for the over 50s, shots for the under 50s will have to come from abroad.

‘Too early to tell’ on any delay

Head of the Department of Health Dr Brendan Murphy said the Government was working with Pfizer “almost daily” to see when they can increase their supply.

“We’re confident that, at some stage in the near future, we will get improved supply of Pfizer.”

It’s hardly a concrete date though. And given much of Europe has also restricted the use of the AZ vaccine to older groups, Pfizer’s jab is going to be in even higher demand.

Mr Morrison could not give an answer for what implication the switch to other vaccines will have for the rollout timeline.

“In terms of what the overall implications are at this stage, it’s too early to give that answer,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“With vaccines, this is what happens. This is not a new process. From time to time, if there are issues with vaccines that occur – and ATAGI consider matters on other medicines or vaccines – then this is the same process,” Mr Morrison said.

AstraZeneca “perfectly safe” for over 50s

The ATAGI has given several recommendations for the use of the AstraZeneca jab.

As well as its OK for use for those over 50, the organisation has said it can be given to younger people but only where the benefit clearly outweighs the risk for that individual’s circumstances.

In addition, people that have had their first dose of the COVID-19 AstraZeneca jab without any serious adverse events can safely be given their second dose. This includes adults under the age of 50.

“It’s very important that those people in those priority groups are vaccinated as quickly as possible, and AstraZeneca is perfectly safe in people in those older age groups,” chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said.

Agreements for future vaccines are great, but you can’t vaccinate with a piece of paper. The worry now that Australia’s already lacklustre vaccine rollout will slow down even further.

An October deadline to vaccinate Australia seems even more unlikely.

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